Anghus Houvouras on the cult of Pixar…
I can remember my first Pixar film like it was yesterday. I was in college looking for an excuse not to study. Like many film enthusiasts the idea of a computer generated animated film had stoked my interest. A friend wandered into the theater green room and said ‘you heard anything about this new Tom Hanks animated movie’. Twenty minutes later we were at an almost empty theater seeing a mid day show marveling at what was very clearly a defining moment in cinema and the future of animation.
Toy Story was an amazing experience. One of those instant classics featuring great characters, amazing visuals (for the time), and a lot of heart. Disney’s animated output had been waning. The 1980’s was difficult for the ‘House of the Mouse’ as their animated features were starting to feel antiquated. They made a massive comeback in the 1990’s with massive hits like The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. After hitting a new creative apex, Disney once again fell into a slump. Pixar was clearly the future and Disney was smart enough to put a ring on it.
Pixar built upon the success of Toy Story and created a very recognizable, very bankable brand. They have a very basic storytelling philosophy: something adorable is lost, either literally or metaphorically. Add celebrity voices. It’s a ridiculously simple formula that has become a license to print money. That part is easy to understand. What’s more difficult to process is the sheer adoration lauded upon Pixar for every film they release.
I’m not sure when it happened. Probably around the time Toy Story 2 was released. Film critics and entertainment writers had crowned Pixar as the new purveyor of dream fulfilment for our inner children, and everything they did was revolutionary. It wasn’t just that the entertainment writers enjoyed Pixar movies and showered them with praise. Film critics were gushing over Pixar hailing them as the second coming of creativity in Hollywood. Every time a new Pixar film was released, articles would flood the web about the Pixar method. How they didn’t take outside pitches. That all their ideas were generated within their organization. That they had cracked the code for making groundbreaking movies.
The critical love affair with Pixar was difficult, as someone who finds most of their output entertaining but hardly groundbreaking. When Pixar released lackluster product the film critics turned to film apologists. And even when their ideas weren’t all that original, they are still hailed for their creative genius.
Take their newest film, Inside Out. Another copy/paste story of something adorable being lost and needing to find their way home. The idea of ‘voices in your head’ has been done before. In fact, Fox did an entire TV series with the same premise called Herman’s Head. You’ve probably never heard of it much less seen it. But those who were aware of the show and the borrowed concept wrote it off as Pixar’s creative isolation. While the similarities are there, it’s hardly a big deal. In fact, you’d think most people would just write the whole thing off as creative crossfire and call it a day. Perhaps entertainment writers would point out that Pixar’s new film really isn’t all that original.
Writers are still gushing with some calling it “Pixar’s most original idea yet.” Even the outlets painfully aware of the similarities to Herman’s Head are all too eager to run flack for Pixar. From IGN:
“Yes, the idea of “the people inside our mind” was once done by the FOX sitcom Herman’s Head, but this looks like a far more ambitious and expansive look at that idea, as one expects from Pixar.”
More ambitious? Perhaps. More expansive? I’m not sure how a two-hour movie is more expansive than a TV series that ran three seasons. Because Pixar is just that good. They can turn water into wine and make a two-hour movie ‘more expansive’ than a TV series that ran for three years simply by anointing it with the holy water collected from John Lasseter’s glistening ball sack.
Obviously I’m resorting to hyperbole for dramatic effect, but you get my point. I’m not saying John Lasseter’s ball sweat has transformative powers. That’s a claim I can’t technically back up.
What I’m saying is that entertainment writers and film critics treat Pixar and their creative talent like religious idols. There is a ridiculous level of devotion from the press who use the same glowing language with each subsequent release. Phrases like ‘Pixar knocks it out of the park AGAIN’ or referencing their previous movies in relation to the new film implying that every release is an instant classic. I’m absolutely fine with that strategy as a business concept, but when you read it from the entertainment press it takes on a Joaquin Phoenix in The Master vibe. Rather that just write about the individual movies, critics spend a lot of space just talking about Pixar.
In truth, the Pixar devotees in the media (and there are a lot of them) seem so invested in their success that it almost feels like a cult. I like a lot of Pixar movies but are we really under the collective assumption that everything they do is groundbreaking and original? The plots are recycled, the character design and visual aesthetics are markedly similar, and most of their output hasn’t been groundbreaking in quite some time. And yet, the media treats them as if they are a fantasy factory incapable of failure. Like the low-level members of a cult still convinced that Pixar can do no wrong.
This isn’t an attack on Pixar but the throngs of entertainment writers who seem all too eager to declare everything they do as completely original works of unbridled genius. Pixar’s greatest accomplishment beyond making entertaining movies may very well be the mass brainwashing of a generation of writers who feel personally invested in their success and continue to promote their legacy. Writers who continue to believe that every Pixar release is a cause for celebration, and that the merit of the individual movies is less important than the overreaching success of Pixar’s ‘creative revolution’.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker and the co-host of Across the Pondcast. Follow him on Twitter.